“You said you liked me.”
“That was last semester.”
Being fourteen is full of moments and people which are transitory: The girl who once held your hand will ignore you when the new school year comes. Jumping on a trampoline in the sunlight. A death in the family. A fight with your best friend (but this won’t last forever). A mix tape, lovingly made but never gifted. Other moments will stick with you forever, like the scar behind the ear after a solo stay at the hospital.
Set in 1994 in Seoul, against the backdrop of the Seongsu Bridge collapse, writer-director Bora Kim’s debut feature House of Hummingbird is a gorgeous, introspective coming-of-age film about the young Eunhee (an incredibly mature and affecting Park Ji-hu), who is learning that not everything is as expected: bridges collapse, her family is tense and distant, people leave.
Eunhee’s world is established via the spaces she inhabits, and who she is in these spaces. At school, she is a loner, picked on by her classmates, and nominated as the class delinquent. At home, she covers for her rebellious older sister, Suhee (Bak Suyeon), who sneaks out on the regular, and takes blows from her quick-tempered older brother, Daehoon (Son Sangyeon). Her father (Jeong Ingi) expects excellence of his family. Together they run a friendly, neighbourhood rice-cake shop, but at home he is domineering — frustrated by Suhee’s school-skipping, and pushing for Daehoon to go to Seoul National University. One night, while Eunhee’s father is yelling at his eldest daughter about his disappointment in her, her mother (Lee Seungyeon) comes to her defence, and Eunhee witnesses her parents violently fight — and then return back to normal the next morning. Her mother isn’t loving, she is distant and unfulfilled. One afternoon while walking around Seoul, Eunhee sees her mother, staring off into the distance. Although Eunhee yells to get her mother’s attention, her mother never turns around, and instead, she walks away.
Being fourteen is also built by the people you know, on the belief that you share something with everyone you meet. Although she is alone at home and school, Eunhee has a best friend in Jisuk (Park Saeyun), her Chinese cram school classmate, and a boyfriend in Jiwan (Jeong Tunseo) a boy from another school. With Jiwan, she has her first kiss. With Jisuk, they go to a disco together, where Eunhee becomes the cool, confident girl her peers want to be friends with. Her ultimate connection, however, comes from her cram school teacher Kim Youngji (Kim Saebyuk). With the same coolness that attracts any young teen to their favourite teacher, Kim Youngji sees Eunhee, and is the first person to really pay attention to her — and with shared pots of tea and a new sketchbook, offers her comfort and hope for the future. However, like most things when you are fourteen, she is but another person, a moment, who is transitory and fleeting in Eunhee’s life. Yet she might be the one who changes it forever.
All in all, House of Hummingbird is a languid, slice of life portrait of a girl still far from anywhere: No longer a child, but not yet an adult. Nowhere near the anticipation of finishing school and beginning a life of her own. Through each moment, Kim captures all the anger, frustration, confusion, loneliness, longing, and dissatisfaction that comes with being fourteen. The fight she has with her best friend after they get caught shoplifting, the fights within her family. The shy feelings of young love. The search for connection. The jumping and yelling in frustration around the living room to the soundtrack of a pop-ballad. Much like in Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade, it’s a memory of a feeling deep inside.
House of Hummingbird will be playing on 5 August and 9 August 2019 as part of the Melbourne International Film Festival.
Claire White is a writer, bookseller and teen screen tragic from Melbourne, Australia. She is currently undertaking an Honours thesis in Screen Studies and has written for Junkee, 4:3, The Big Issue, Screen Queens and more. Follow her at @teencineteq and @theclairencew